Book Bag

Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2014

By Terry S. Johnson

WordTech Editions


As a college student, Northampton writer Terry S. Johnson was more musically inclined, studying piano and harpsichord at two Midwestern schools before ultimately deciding on a career in education. Johnson taught for 25 years at the former Marks Meadow Elementary School at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

But Johnson also enjoyed writing when she was younger and, near the end of her teaching career, she took up poetry again, earned an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and helped found the Straw Dog Writers Guild of Western Massachusetts.

Since then, Johnson has had her verse published in journals and anthologies, and with “Coalescence,” she’s put together her first collection of poems. It seems an apt title, as she explores a range of forms — free verse, narrative and lyric poetry, even a sort of extended haiku — and sound: In the table of contents, poems are grouped by the vowels A, E, I, O and U.

In poems that reflect her own memories and the more universal human experience, Johnson writes about music, love, teaching, growing older and many other topics. There’s a bit of musical syncopation to some of her verse, and she traces the connection between words and sound more literally in “Akhmatov”:

“Autumn winds lift fallen leaves / in serenade. Vibrato, pitch, / swoon of dance. Sweet violins / perfectly matched. More often, / a careless, almost violent spin, / sudden burst of snare drum, / quick roll to hardened ground.”

There’s also the droll humor of “Reconciliation,” the second section of the two-part “Back and Forth” about the aftermath of a longtime couple’s bitter argument, as a husband carefully concentrates on his morning paper and bowl of cereal while his wife watches:

“The news in print so much easier to swallow, / he prefers his Times in quiet doses. His wife, / meanwhile, weaves demands in elaborate / designs (Such imagination and energy!), their / kitchen table a site of endless negotiations, / a Security Council flummoxed in tied votes. / No wonder the world’s in such a state when they / can’t even get it right, just the two of them.”

Terry Johnson will read from and sign copies of her book June 29 at 4 p.m. at Amherst Books. She will be the featured reader July 10 at 7 p.m. at The Unbuttoned Series, 108 Cottage Street, Easthampton.


By John J. Clayton

Texas Tech University Press


Former UMass literature and writing professor John J. Clayton hasn’t slowed down since retiring. In “Many Seconds Into the Future,” Clayton, whose previous short stories have been included in “Best American Short Stories” and other prize-winning anthologies, offers a collection of new tales that plumb the fears and mysteries of life — and the fear and depression of being near the end.

Clayton, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for a previous story collection, also writes about Jewish life and the questions surrounding worship, including the tensions that can arise between secular and more observant Jews.

In “The Name Changer,” just before 70-something Mel undergoes a risky but vital heart operation, his daughter brings a rabbi to his hospital bed, who suggests he take a second name to improve his chances of surviving. “You’re Mel? So you become Chaim Mel. From Chai, life. Fresh taste? And God willing, the Angel of Death, the Malach HaMavet, passes you by. It’s not a sure thing, but I’ve seen it.”

Mel gives in to his daughter and the rabbi, goes through a bedside ceremony to take on the new name — and miraculously, he comes through the operation with flying colors and seems to take on a strange internal “glowing.” He feels younger, more vital, has a brief affair with a younger woman. Is it due to his name change? Mel becomes uncertain about what he’s experiencing — something doesn’t feel right — and a second talk with the rabbi will bring unexpected results.

Several of Clayton’s stories make for intriguing but bleak reading. In “A Man in Thrall,” a university professor nearing retirement has an affair with a graduate student less than half his age and is convinced he has a new lease on life — until he doesn’t. The main character in “The Good Father,” a divorced, alcoholic academic, tries to reconnect with his son on a college-visiting tour but finds himself blocked by his sense of failure and his drinking.

“I’ve been disappointing people all my life,” [thinks Stewart]. “Now we’re at the core of it. Uch! As if I’ve got a hole in the middle and the only thing I know to fill it with is self-pity. Come everyone, look at the hole in me!”

Clayton, who lives in Leverett, also has been a visiting professor at Mount Holyoke and Hampshire colleges. He is the author of a number of novels, including 2011’s “Mitzvah Man,” as well a several nonfiction books about writing.